What if cars could stop you from driving drunk? An insight into the latest technology

Car keys are shown through glasses with alcohol in this photo illustration. Companies are developing technology that would enable cars to prevent drunk people from driving.

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

It’s an idea that could mean a pretty revolutionary change in vehicle safety: what if ours cars could prevent drunk driving?

The most recent infrastructure law contained a provision that stipulates that from a few years on, all new cars must be equipped with technology to detect and prevent drunk driving.

Some companies were already trying to figure out how to do this. Now it is needed.

“In fact, I think this particular technology could save more lives than airbags,” said David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “We’re talking about more than 10,000 people who lose their lives every year to drunk driving in the country.”

How could this technology actually work?

The new law does not provide any information, but there are some approaches that have been explored over the past few years. They fall into two main categories: systems that measure your blood alcohol levels while you perform normal driving duties and cameras that look for telltale signs of drunkenness.

Here’s what you should know about each of them, and how quickly they could become a reality.

Built-in breathalyzers could measure the cabin air

One system being tested on the street today includes sensors that automatically take breath samples and look for traces of alcohol without the need to blow into a tube.

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) is a joint project between automakers and the government working on this technology that would prevent the vehicle from driving if it detects a driver’s blood alcohol level is above the legal level.

DADSS researchers have built sensors that can be integrated into the dashboard or window of a vehicle. They currently require a driver to blow a puff of air in the general direction of the sensor.

But ultimately, the goal is for the system to sense a driver’s normal breathing – and distinguish between the driver’s exhalations and those of all passengers – and then measure the alcohol content of that sample.

The freight forwarding company Schneider is currently using a small number of DADSS systems in its tractor units to test whether the system can withstand the rigors of real road and driving operations. (The temperature changes and vibrations inside a vehicle can affect technology, a constant challenge for automotive engineers.)

DADSS researchers are also working on another type of technology – a touch-based sensor that shines a light into a driver’s fingertip and uses the reflected light to detect the alcohol content of the blood.

Theoretically, the device would be integrated into a surface that the driver would have to touch anyway, like an ignition button, even though it is still in the prototype stage.

A man undergoes a sobriety test at a LAPD police DUI checkpoint in Reseda, Los Angeles on April 13, 2018.  Finally, a new federal law will require new vehicles to recognize and prevent drunk driving, which would revolutionize vehicle safety.

A man undergoes a sobriety test at a LAPD police DUI checkpoint in Reseda, Los Angeles on April 13, 2018. Finally, a new federal law will require new vehicles to recognize and prevent drunk driving, which would revolutionize vehicle safety.

Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images

Cameras could monitor for signs of impairment

Another option would be to bypass the direct measurement of blood alcohol levels and instead use cameras to look for signs of impairment.

This is the approach Volvo will take for future vehicles; The company tells NPR that the technology will be rolled out in the next few years but does not want to provide any further details.

Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at research firm Guidehouse Insights, says the big advantage of this approach is that it can use cameras that many automakers are already installing in their vehicles.

Right now these cameras are being used to make sure drivers are looking at the road instead of being distracted.

“They consist of a small camera that is usually mounted on the steering column and looks at the driver,” he says. “You use infrared so it can see in the dark when you drive at night – or if you wear sunglasses it can still see your eyes.”

But hypothetically, the same cameras could be repurposed to look for other things. And some companies are optimistic that a visual system can independently detect impairments reliably.

LaVonda Brown is the founder of EyeGage, a company working on software to automatically detect intoxication by using a camera aimed at a person’s eyes.

She says that a drunk person’s eyes are shiny and their pupils react differently to light. And there is a distinctive involuntary movement called nystagmus, which is often used in field sobriety tests to detect alcohol consumption – this is what police officers look for when asking drivers to follow a pen with their eyes.

“Your eyes are so full of information,” she says, “and you can’t hide them.”

EyeGage is currently collecting data in hopes to improve the accuracy of its software across various demographics.

Yet the technology is still years away from reality

These examples of technologies that could prevent drunk driving need to be refined before they’re ready for mass adoption.

Federal regulators have several years to determine what type of technology is actually required under the new vehicle standard – three years by default, with the option of renewal if they need it.

And the car manufacturers would then have two years to actually implement the standard in their vehicles.

Congress did not specify what technology cars should contain, only that they must be able to detect drunk driving and be “passive”.

This means that a driver cannot have to blow into a device that is currently installed in the vehicles of some convicted alcoholics.

In theory, a sober driver would not even notice the system – they would just get into their vehicle and drive as usual without doing anything special.

However, there could be a backlash against this technology. In the past, Americans have resisted efforts to install seat belt locks (which would prevent a vehicle from starting if vehicle occupants were not using their seat belts) and speed limiters (which prevent vehicles from traveling dangerously fast).

And the ACLU has raised concerns about privacy in both camera-based and physiology-based systems.

But safety advocates are excited about the new federal push for drunk driving technology. Mothers against drunk driving named the measure contained in the Infrastructure Act “monumental.”

“This is the beginning of the end of drinking under the influence,” said MADD President Alex Otte in a statement.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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